TORONTO (AP) — Canada said Wednesday it was phasing out the type of rail tankers involved in last summer's massive explosion of a runaway oil train that incinerated much of a town in Quebec, killing 47 people and prompting intense public pressure to make oil trains safer.
Canada's transport minister said the DOT-111 tankers, which are used to carry crude oil and ethanol and are prone to rupture, must be retired or retrofitted within three years. Transport Minister Lisa Raitt's announcement comes about nine months after more than 60 of the tankers carrying oil from North Dakota came loose in the middle of the night, sped downhill for nearly seven miles (11 kilometers) and derailed into the town of Lac-Megantic. At least five of the tankers exploded, leveling about 30 buildings, including a popular bar that was filled with revelers.
Since then, trains carrying oil also have exploded and burned in Alabama, North Dakota and New Brunswick. The rail industry is deeply integrated across North America, and Wednesday's announcement was watched closely in the U.S. Both nations' accident investigators earlier this year implored their governments to impose new safety rules.
The DOT-111 tank car is considered the staple of the North American fleet and makes up about 70 percent of all tankers on the rails. But the concerns surrounding the tanks are not new, and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has been urging replacing or retrofitting the tank cars since 1991. The more recent, fiery explosions have brought the public's attention to the problem.
Raitt said the least crash-resistant of the older DOT-111 tank cars, about 5,000 of them, must be removed from the rails immediately.
"Three years is the amount of time that we thought was the best saw off between what industry said that they could do and what is wanted by the Transportation Safety Board," Raitt said.
The three-year phase out will affect about 65,000 tank cars in North America, including a third or a quarter in Canada. Raitt said the industry thinks the three year phase out is "ambitious."
The transport minister announced the changes in response to recommendations by Canada's Transportation Safety Board in the aftermath of the Quebec tragedy.
Canada's safety board has said a long phase-out would not be good enough. Safety experts have said the soda-can shaped car has a tendency to split open during derailments and other major accidents.
Rail carriers will also be required to prepare emergency response assistance plans for shipments of all petroleum products, including everything for crude oil to diesel. Trains will also be forced to slow as they moved through communities.
Lac-Megantic's mayor, Collette Roy-Laroche, said Wednesday she was satisfied with the new regulations and timeline. Trains began running through the town again last December, six months after the accident.
"The community in Lac-Megantic is a community that requires rail transportation in order to maintain the development of its economy, but at the same time, Lac-Megantic is also demanding that there be proper regulations in place to ensure railway safety," Roy-Laroche told reporters.
Roy-Laroche said she's still working with the federal government to improve insurance coverage in the aftermath of rail disasters like the one that took place in her town.
The oil industry has rapidly moved to using trains to transport oil in part because of oil booms in the Bakken region in North Dakota and in the oil sands in Alberta, and because of a lack of pipelines. U.S. freight railroads transported about 415,000 carloads of crude in 2013, up from just 9,500 in 2008, according to government and industry figures.
The oil trains, some of which are 100 cars long, pass through or near scores of cities and towns.
Some companies have said they will voluntarily take the DOT-111 tank cars offline. Irving Oil Ltd., a large Canadian refiner, has said it will stop using the older DOT-111s by April 30. Canada's two largest railways, Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway, have already said they would move away from the DOT-111. But it is the oil companies or shippers that own or lease many of the cars.
Edward Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, said in a statement that railroads have also been calling for the phase out or retrofitting of older tankers.
"Transport Canada has indeed recommended an aggressive timeline and we are confident that the industry will do all it can to meet it," he said.
David Pryce, a vice president with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, called the three-year timeframe "ambitious" and said industry would need to cooperate to meet the new regulations.
Associated Press writers Benjamin Shingler in Montreal and Joan Lowy in Washington and contributed to this report.